Olmec Indians, an ancient Indian people of Mexico. They created the first civilization in North America. It was centered in the tropical jungles of the Gulf Coast region near what is now Veracruz, and it flourished from about the 13th century B.C. to about the 1st century B.C. The Olmecs influenced the development of such later Indian cultures as the Mayan and the Zapotec.
The three main centers of Olmec civilization were at San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes, each of which contains remains of many large structures. The best-known Olmec artifacts are colossal stone heads, ranging in height from 5 to 10 feet (1.5–3 m). Other stone monuments include numerous pillars and altars. Characteristic small art pieces include figurines made of granite, serpentine, or jade, and elaborately carved ceremonial axes A favorite motif in their artwork is a part-man, part-jaguar creature representing their most important deity. The Olmecs created the earliest known cave paintings in the New World. There is evidence that they devised a calendar and hieroglyphic writing.
The first Olmec stone head was discovered in 1862, but it was not realized that it represented evidence of an early civilization until archeologists uncovered important Olmec sites during the 1920's. The great antiquity of Olmec civilization was not learned until the 1950's, when the carbon-14 method of dating ancient artifacts was discovered.